In a report to the City of Toronto’s Budget Committee meeting for May 11, 2017, City Manager Peter Wallace makes two recommendations that will have a major effect on transit planning and operations in Toronto:
- All spending for the 2018 Operating Budget would be frozen at 2017 levels. For the TTC, this would mean flat-lining the operating subsidy at its current level ($560.8 million for the “conventional” system, and $142.7 million for Wheel-Trans).
- No new projects would be approved within the Ten Year Capital Budget and Plan until 2027 when there is borrowing headroom available to the City to fund additional works.
If a project is on the favoured list that is tagged for federal infrastructure subsidy, then finding a way to pay for the City’s share would be a priority in budgeting. However, it is not yet clear just which items in the TTC’s long shopping list will attain this status. Those that are excluded have only a faint hope of going forward.
A related problem here is that Toronto does not yet know how much, exactly, it will receive in Federal infrastructure grants, and it is quite likely that the money available will not stretch far enough to cover the entire list. Moreover, Queen’s Park is an uncertain partner because (a) the province feels it is already showering Toronto with money for projects now underway, and (b) the current government is unlikely to survive the 2018 election, and the policies of a successor regime could be hostile to large-scale transit spending commitments for Toronto.
Although there is much focus on Capital projects, the real challenge in the short term will be for the Operating budget. In the City’s report, the “opening pressures” for the TTC budget are substantial:
- In 2017, $18 million was used from the TTC Stabilization Reserve fund to offset the budget shortfall and some new services. This was one-time money that must be replaced in 2018 and beyond. The reserve fund is now empty and cannot be used as a source to “fix” 2018 problems.
- TTC ridership is forecast to come in below the budgeted level for 2017, and on a budget-to-budget basis, this represents a loss of $10 million in revenue. When the TTC Board passed its 2017 budget, it also decided that there would be no 2018 fare increase. Quite bluntly, that was a political stunt that simply cannot be implemented without new revenue or cuts to the operating budget. Fare revenue in 2017 is about $1.1 billion, and so each 1% increase would generate about $11 million, less whatever is lost to elasticity (riders lost by higher pricing).
- The base operating costs of the TTC are forecast to rise by $102 million, not including the operating effects of Capital projects (see below). This covers wage and material cost increases, as well as the cost of any new service (none is currently planned thanks to the ridership situation).
- The opening of the TYSSE to Vaughan will add $26 million to the TTC’s costs. Most of the riders projected for this line already pay a TTC fare, and so the marginal revenue will be much less than the operating cost. Riders transferring from York Region services to the subway for a journey to York University will not pay an extra TTC fare (this will be implemented via a Presto tap-out).
- Other increases arising from past decisions (i.e. the full year effects of changes made in the 2017 budget year) add $6 million.
- With more riders using Presto, fees to that provider will rise by $38 million. In the City Manager’s report, this is offset by a saving of $45 through the elimination of station collectors (about which more below).
- Elimination of legacy fare gates and other old equipment will reduce costs by $5 million.
Lost Revenue Stabilization Reserve $ 18 million Ridership Shortfall 10 Subtotal $ 28 million Additional Costs Maintain Existing Service $ 102 million Open TYSSE 26 Eliminate Station Collectors - 45 Presto Fees 38 Fare gate & other savings - 5 Other Increases 6 Subtotal $ 122 million Total $ 150 million
The savings from Station Collectors arise because, from the City’s point of view, the TTC “Station Transformation Program” constitutes a new “service”, not a continuation of an existing practice. This includes conversion of the Collectors (or an equivalent headcount) into roving Customer Service agents. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the cost of this group of employees might have been included as a saving in the cost justification for Presto (or any other fare card).
I asked the TTC for the breakdown of savings and costs of the Presto transition, and received the following non-answer from Brad Ross:
The short answer from the TTC is that we continue to assess the timing of all of this – moving collectors out of the booth and transitioning to customer service agents, the costs associated continued fare collection and distribution, and the costs we will bear with being 100% Presto-enabled.
The 2018 budget process will flesh all of that out, but we’re not there yet. [Email of May 9, 2017]
That’s a rather odd state of affairs considering that the TTC based its criterion for Presto fees on what they expected to save in fare collection costs. Like so much about Presto, this is a very murky subject.
As for the Station Transformation project, the City Manager’s report states:
It is important to note that the projected 2018 net pressure or “gap” does not account for any additional service investments or priorities approved or identified by Council. For example, the $126 million forecasted pressure for TTC is based on maintaining current service levels. This excludes an additional $59 million identified by the TTC for initiatives such as Station Transformation which would be categorized as a new request and will be considered separately, subject to funding availability. [pp. 12-13]
[Note: The City’s total of $126 million does not match the total shown above of $150 million for reasons that are unclear. I have asked the City to reconcile this.]
One can well argue that the idea of getting rid of all Collectors is unworkable (even GO Transit, an all-Presto system, has station agents), and that the many duties the new Customer Service staff would take on are logically inconsistent (being available at a booth to answer questions and provide general directions, but also roaming the stations). Whatever the intent, the TTC has not yet produced a clear explanation of whether savings on Collectors were part of the justification for paying Presto to handle fares.
In any event, this $45 million is not included in the TTC base budget requirement for 2018 from the City’s point of view. If it is to be approved, that will be an additional expense on top of the other pressures.
Completely missing is any discussion of a Ridership Growth Strategy. Although the TTC tells everyone that ridership is down for various reasons, they also have stated that both the St. Clair and King streetcar lines are currently running over capacity during peak periods. This does not square with the claim that the TTC does not require more service, and suggests that one source of ridership “loss” is the inability of people to actually use the service.
An RGS report was supposed to come before the TTC Board earlier in 2017, but it was held back pending resolution of budget issues. Clearly this problem has not gone away, and yet if the report continues to be hidden, we will have no idea what might be possible and at what cost. Advocacy is not the TTC’s strong suit, and we have no idea of just how badly the system will be crammed thanks to the shortage of vehicles and the lack of sufficient revenue to operate them.
Not to be ignored is the status of Wheel-Trans where demand is growing very quickly thanks to improved eligibility requirements from the province. Freezing the Wheel-Trans subsidy (which provides almost all of its operating funding) will not allow growth, and the TTC could find itself in violation of accessibility targets if the City does not come up with the cash.
On the Capital side, the inability to add projects to the “approved” list could punch a big hole in plans for the Bloor-Danforth Subway’s revival. A collection of projects is to be presented to the Board for the renovation of Line 2 BD including:
- A new signal system with Automatic Train Control
- A new fleet replacing the T-1 trains which were built from 1995-2001
- A new subway yard near Kipling Station
The ATC project is “funded” in the capital budget at an estimated cost of $431 million of which $131 million currently appears under post-2026 spending. Whether money for that is actually available in the City’s financial plans is unclear, but this will obviously be a case of “in for a penny, in for a pound”. The budgetary timing is odd because 1/3 of the total is post-2026 after the new system is supposed to be enabled and the old system decommissioned.
Neither the new fleet nor the new carhouse are funded projects in the budget. However, there is a timing issue for this project and a new fleet because the Scarborough Subway Extension will use ATC signalling, and this forces the issue because there is no point in retrofitting ATC gear to cars that will be at or near retirement age when the extension opens. There will be some cost offset in other budget lines including the SSE because storage for the new Line 2 fleet will be consolidated. (Greenwood’s layout is unsuited to the new unit trains now operating on Line 1 YUS, although it could be reconfigured and used for a future DRL with a track connection via Danforth.)
Another unfunded project is the purchase of an additional 60 new streetcars required to handle growing demand in the early 2020s, plus a further 15 (a placeholder number, probably) for the Waterfront transit project.
Putting any unfunded project “on hold” for 2018 might work as a way to avoid a capital planning crisis before the municipal election, but it will not do for the long term.
During the 2017 budget discussions, City Staff appealed to Council to set its service priorities as an integral part of building the budget:
Staff advised Council that it should first establish its collective vision for the City to determine the level and quality of services it wishes to deliver, determine and prioritize the City-building investments required to achieve this vision and consider the associated expenditures necessary to carry this out. In order to fund this expenditure level and any resultant gap, City Council would have to raise revenues and should look to all of its revenue-generating authorities and tools to do so, including property tax rate increases. This would be especially necessary if Council chose not to reduce its services and service levels. [p. 6]
For 2018, the City Manager warns:
Further expense reductions in 2018 will require strong action and a willingness to both reduce and sustain reductions in service levels if residential tax increases are to be kept at the rate of inflation. As recently made evident in the 2016 and 2017 Budget processes, there has been a reluctance by Council to embrace service level or service model changes; creating a mismatch between service aspirations and revenue generation. [p. 13]
There has been a fair amount of discussion by Council and input from the public (Long Term Financial Plan public consultation) that across the board budget targets do not reflect Council priorities, and therefore, should be differential. The current challenge to establish differential targets is the lack of stated relative Council priorities and implementation plans. A key issue is not that priorities are lacking but rather that there are many – many Council approved strategies, plans and service demand initiatives – some of which have been considered in relation to one another with their respective financial impacts within a priority-setting process that links service and policy planning to the City’s budget process and considered within the City’s financial capacity. [p. 14]
The priorities endorsed by Council for 2017 amounted to cherry picking a few very expensive capital projects, and demanding that staff find “efficiencies” with which to pay for any service improvements, indeed simply to keep the lights on. In the case of the TTC, a bit of last-minute hocus pocus avoided a large funding gap by boosting the assumed revenue from the land transfer tax. That particular hat does not have an endless supply of rabbits.
The overwhelming demand is to keep property taxes at the rate of inflation. That is an interesting concept as the City Manager explores in some detail both by reference to practices in other cities, and in the question of just what level of “inflation” should be used. Toronto has aimed at the CPI with a 2% increase in residential tax rates,but when the rebalancing effects for non-residential are factored in, the overall tax increase was only 1.39% for 2017. Moreover, there is a separate cost index measuring those items typically consumed by a municipal government, not by a private household. The municipal index has been running at over 3%, and it is no wonder that the City is unable to keep up with costs.
In addition to the “regular” property tax increases, there have been special levies to fund transit capital projects. The first, introduced during Mayor Ford’s term, is a 1.6% tax that will fund the City’s portion of the Scarborough Subway Extension. This tax will remain in place as long as needed to pay off whatever that share of the total cost is, eventually. The second, is a 0.5% tax building gradually to 2.5% to fund Mayor Tory’s capital projects. The situation is explained in the report:
Under current Council policy, debt servicing costs cannot exceed 15 percent of property tax revenues in any given year. In 2017, the 15% debt service ratio policy was relaxed to an average of 15% over the 10-year capital plan period as a result of the increased debt capacity made available to fund key capital priorities in 2017. $5.8 billion in new capital investments was made possible by adding $3.3 billion in increased debt capacity, based on the following actions:
- $134 million debt room made available by better matching cashflow funding estimates to actual project timelines and activities
- $2.2 billion in debt capacity was added in the latter 5 year years of the capital plan period by adding new projects that filled unoccupied debt room reflective of a 14.75% debt servicing ratio; and
- $1 billion in additional debt borrowing capacity was made possible with Council’s approval of a 0.5% levy for each of 5 years as a contribution to a capital City Building Fund for transit and housing priorities.
The added debt capacity enabled the City to fund critical, unfunded capital priorities such as the added costs for the Gardiner Expressway Rehabilitation Project, the SmartTrack transit expansion project; Port Lands Flood Protection; the City’s required matching funds for TTC and non-TTC critical state of good repair projects eligible under the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF); Toronto Public Library state of good repair and various transformation and modernization investments.
While this added debt capacity allowed the City to fund key projects included in the $33 billion of unfunded capital projects, doing so has maximized the City’s debt capacity based on its current, yet now relaxed, debt servicing policy. [p. 19]
In brief, if there is to be any new capital borrowing within the next decade for projects that are not already in the “funded” list, then these will require new revenue to service the debt. Even beyond 2026, the debt “mountain” will not recede quickly.
The only glimmer of hope within these recommendations is that:
Priority be placed on completing transit, transportation and social infrastructure projects funded through intergovernmental agreements in order to meet program conditions and deadlines to mitigate risk to the City, and
Should any funding become available, that capital funding priorities be limited to projects that address:
- Critical State of Good Repair, including energy retrofits
- AODA Compliance
- Transformation, modernization and innovation projects with financial benefits
- High-needs social infrastructure [p. 20]
Notably absent from that list is “rapid transit expansion”, or indeed transit expansion of any kind.
2018 will be a grim year for the City’s budget for all portfolios. Transit might get by, again, through some fiddling with figures, but that will not represent a real commitment to better transit, only to prevent its complete collapse while Councillors and the Mayor are trolling for votes.